9 Things That Happen When You Encourage Solo Play

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Can we let you in on a little secret? You don’t have to hover and constantly try to entertain your kids. In fact, according to experts, it’s better for your little ones and their imaginations if you start fostering their independence by giving them time to play alone. We’ve rounded up a few parenting experts who share why they recommend solo play to help your kiddos become more well-rounded as they grow. See their reasons below.

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1: Develop Responsibility

“For preschool-age children, solo/solitary or independent play allows children the freedom to make their own rules, which helps them understand they can make choices and can learn from those choices,” says Whittaker. It’s a lot harder to blame someone else for a mess if your kiddo plays alone. They learn that choices lead to consequences.

Suppose your child isn’t accustomed to independent play. In that case, Whittaker recommends starting by helping them to understand their play options by saying something like: “While I am on my work call, you can draw a picture for me, put a puzzle together or use blocks to build something. I can’t wait to see what you have accomplished by yourself while I was busy on my call.”

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2: Lower anxiety

As humans, we feel better when we control our environment. When children play alone, “they learn that their play does not have to be guided or influenced by others and gain a sense of being in charge of what happens and when it happens. This is how children develop a sense of self-efficacy, resilience and responsibility,” says Whittaker. 

Making choices and working independently on solutions when the stakes are small can lead to big benefits when children get older. If your preschooler comes to you to solve a problem that came up during solo play, try asking them how they would solve the problem if you weren’t there. 

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3: Boost Creativity

Next time your mini complains of boredom, tell them you’re stretching their creative muscles. “Prominent writers, poets and artists have described profound creative leaps that originated with a quiet moment and nothing to do, epiphanies that emerged from extended periods of day-dreaming that began as ‘boredom,’” says Jeanne Huybrechts, Chief Academic Officer at Stratford School. “Numerous psychologist-researchers have established that boredom can trigger mind-wandering, which leads to creativity. Moments of boredom should be cherished, or at least recognized as an opportunity to spark creative learning in kids and find things that interest them.” 

If your crew doesn’t want to flex their creative muscles, give them a clear start and end time. Get a timer and tell the kids that they need to play independently until they hear it ring. According to Huybrechts, chores “allow one to be physically busy, but with a reduced cognitive load that allows for daydreaming.” So if your children don’t know what to do while they wait for the buzzer to ring, you can always suggest they clean something.

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4: Drive Resiliency and Life-long learning

Unlike screen time, solo play requires active engagement from your child if they want entertainment. In the beginning, they might not know how to build their games. But don’t be too quick to help them out of their boredom. 

As Allison Wilson, Senior Director of Curriculum & Innovation at Stratford School, says, “It’s not the boredom itself that helps children acquire these skills — it’s what they do with the boredom that can support creativity, independence, self-confidence, and even mental wellness. The next time you hear your child say, “I’m bored,” embrace an open-ended task or encourage a bit of mess or outdoor play. You might be surprised to see how quickly your child turns boredom into a budding new interest or skill.”

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5: Teach Happiness in Solitude

According to the latest US Census data, 37 million people–roughly 28% of all US households–live alone. Teaching children to enjoy their own company can lead to a more fulfilling life down the line. They will have strategies for entertaining themselves because you allowed them to hone their skills while they lived at home. And adults who flourish on their own won’t stick with a toxic partner because they fear living alone. 

If your small fry needs an audience, start with ‘solo adjacent’ play. Whittaker suggests checking in with them often with verbal or nonverbal cues. “Explain that even though you will not be able to talk to them while you are on your work call; you can still see them and communicate with them by smiling or giving them a ‘thumbs up’ to let them know you appreciate their efforts to play all by themselves.”

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6: Support Better Parenting

There are only so many times you can play fire flower unicorn kitties without losing your ability to parent with empathy. Even if it’s for a few minutes, solo play allows you to catch your breath. Research from a team at the University of California, Riverside, shows that young children are better able to regulate their own emotions when parents are calm. 

Sometimes the best way to get your child to play alone is to tell them you need to take a calming activity break. Try saying, “I’m feeling a little over-excited right now, and I need to read for a few minutes to calm myself down. You can play with your stuffies or color something while you wait.”

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7: Steer Little Problem Solvers

Real talk: Our littles know how to problem-solve. That’s why, when they get quiet, we run to find out what they’re doing. The challenge is steering that ability to more productive uses than, say, smearing peanut butter on the dog. 

Think about containing toddlers in an area while you work in an adjacent space nearby. “Kids learn to problem solve more when they don’t have an adult right nearby for help,” says Meg St-Esprit, M. Ed in Counseling and Development, “They might figure out a way to get the Legos to do what they want them to do, figure out how to put Barbie’s shoes on themselves.”

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8: Supercharge Focus

When children play alone, they don’t have to keep checking in with someone else to find out if they are doing the right thing. Without distractions from other people and shiny devices, they can achieve a ‘flow state,’ where they’re fully absorbed in (and enjoying!) a task. This will come in handy during the school-age years when it’s time to study for tests and complete homework.

When it comes to helping toddlers focus, less is more. Put some toys out of sight and set others out where they can be discovered. Those blocks from grandma will feel exciting all over again if they’ve been gone for a while.

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9: Discover Who They Are

No one expects a four-year-old to settle on a career path. But independent play helps preschoolers to discover new interests. Whether they love trucks, dinosaurs, horses or trains, solo play also means never having to stop the game before they’re ready. 

The best way to support kiddos in discovering new interests is by exposing them to different things. Bring books back from the library. Borrow plastic horses from a friend with an older child. Keep old boxes from those Amazon deliveries and stack them in a corner. 

Then sit back and let your child do the rest. 

—Teresa Douglas & Leah R. Singer

 

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11 Toys That Foster Independent Play (& Will Gift You a Few Minutes to Yourself)

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